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Meet Professor Chris O'Neill and his passion – Sailing

Meet Professor Chris O'Neill and his passion – Sailing

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Woolcock’s Professor Chris O’Neill has been a pioneer in the field of assisted reproductive technologies for more than 30 years. His work provided the foundations for preimplantation genetic diagnosis, the treatment of male infertility and the current efforts to understand the long-term health consequences for ‘IVF babies’. 

As the leader of our Epigenetics of Chronic Disease research group he is currently working to identify the key causative modifications laid down during embryo development that are contributing to an epidemic of cardiopulmonary disease throughout the developed world. 

Chris’ research has always pushed boundaries, so it comes as no surprise that his free time is not spent sitting in a deck chair. Last year he completed his fourth Sydney to Hobart yacht race and his first in the new field of two-handed ocean racing. The excitement and intensity of the experience left him wanting more. 

“From the very beginning, the race is a mix of adrenaline, focus and excitement,” he said. “Navigating through the throng of competitors at the starting line is like merging onto a busy motorway at rush hour. You need to find your position, navigate the lanes, the wind and tide, dodge the wind wash from larger boats, and make strategic choices.” 

Training is vital 

The lead-up to last year’s race was a whirlwind with his J/99 yacht, Blue Planet, only arriving in Sydney at the end of October. This year, he and co-skipper Tom Johnston have completed months of training in the Bluewater Series, six races that present various challenges – from weather patterns, navigational complexities, physical and mental exertion and endurance. They started off with the Sydney to Gold Coast Race, then headed to the Flinders Island Race, followed by Tollgate Islet (to Bateman’s Bay and back). Still on the horizon are the Bird Island Race, a short race to Norah Head and back and the penultimate race (compulsory for entry in the Sydney to Hobart) – the Cabbage Tree Race – just off the heads of Port Stephens. Blue Planet is currently leading the Blue Water Series in the two-handed division and ‘is on the podium’ in several of the other handicap divisions that include all the crewed boats. 

As a competitor on a two-handed boat, there’s an added layer of complexity. Every decision carries significant weight. Safety is crucial and you must be prepared for every scenario, including a ‘man overboard’. It’s all part of the thrill, according to Chris.

“And the sheer intensity of these races is balanced by the most beautiful experiences. Watching 30 whales and their calves on their annual migration breach as the sun set off the Gold Coast is one that comes to mind – I like to think they were breaching to see it. You can sometimes hear whale songs when you are down in the hull as the boat acts like an echo chamber.”

Strategy is key

Strategy is important and the competition is thrilling, according to Chris.

“Boats are handicapped to level the playing field, so it’s not just about finishing first, it's about beating your handicap which is calculated based on the design of the boat, how fast it can go under certain conditions and the sail area. Although super maxis like Comanche may win the race on the water, they don’t often claim victory on handicap.” 

The thrill is even more intensely felt on arrival in Hobart after four days at sea with little sleep and food. Tasmania’s Taste of Summer Festival welcomes the fleet and spectators with food stalls on the waterfront, restaurants and bars pumping, a party atmosphere and a well-deserved rum and coke or two on offer.

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